2019 Skoll World Forum – Day Three

I’m in Oxford, England for the 2019 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, taking place from April 9 through April 12. This year’s theme, Accelerating Possibility, is focused on exploring how humanity can accelerate a future that is fair, inclusive, and sustainable. You can find links to my recaps of Day One, Day Two, and Day Four here. Below is the recap of my Day Three at the Forum.

Not Just for Laughs: How Comedy Sparks Change

Fenella Kernebone (Head of Curation, TEDxSydney) moderated. The panelists were Caty Borum Chattoo (Center for Media & Social Impact, American University), Omri Marcus (Head of Screenz Originals, Screenz), and Erika Soto Lamb (VP, Social Impact Strategy, Comedy Central).

Chattoo identified comedy as a deviant and disruptive form of art. And while art in general is becoming more and more widely recognized as a vehicle for social justice, comedy’s power is underappreciated. Chattoo said social justice actors are dramatically underusing comedy as a strategic and important tool for social change. And the philanthropic community should pay attention to this. Serious documentaries are being funded but comedic art forms are generally not. Chattoo proclaimed, “We need comedy now more than ever, to help us speak truth to power.”

While philanthropy and social justice champions may not sufficiently recognize comedy’s power to spark change, the general public continues to get their news and (slowly) accept new ideas from comedic shows, performances, art forms, and communications. Chattoo noted the example of Hasan Minhaj, who has discussed serious social issues from a comedic angle and, importantly, from an immigrant’s experience. His show, Patriot Act, was recently nominated for a Peabody Award.

The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver were also mentioned as well as the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cosby. Chattoo’s Twitter feed shows her in a photo with Norman Lear, writer and producer of many groundbreaking shows like All in the Family, Maude, the Jeffersons, and One Day at a Time, all of which contributed heavily to changes in public perception of race, women’s rights, divorce, and reproductive justice, among other things.

Chattoo played a short clip of Michelle Wolf’s satiric performance at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner in which she made fun of, among other things, journalism’s treatment of, and responsibility for, President Trump. You can read Chattoo’s defense of Wolf’s performance here.

In response to a question about comedy used to bring conflicting sides together rather than to further divide them, Chattoo distinguished satire (often used to mobilize a base) from episodic shows that could appeal to the general public and change people’s thinking. She provided the example of how mainstream television shows helped shape greater public acceptance of lesbian and gay people.

Lamb is the first hire by Comedy Central from the social justice world. With a nod to the very challenging political moment, she said, “”Comedy is a medium to get people to see the absurdity of the times we live in.” As an example of the power of comedy in social justice advocacy, Lamb showed an Amy Schumer clip about birth control. In one very funny minute, Schumer powerfully advocated for reproductive rights and, in the last few seconds, gun control.

Lamb later pointed out the need for evolution to happen in the comedy and social justice worlds. From the comedy side, we can be funny and we can change the world. From the social justice side, we can change the world and we can be funny.

Marcus informed the audience that comedians are all story-tellers. He also noted that comedy is breaking chaotic reality in edible chunks. His comedic performances included creation of an app, Lick it DNA:

We created and released a “scientific” app to Google’s Play Store, which purported to classify the user’s “DNA heritage” if they licked the phone’s touchscreen. The idea was to play into racists’ desire to check and proclaim their “purity.” If you’re wondering what happens in the app after you lick the screen, all users get the same “results”: “Congratulations! You are from Africa. Like everyone else on the planet – you phone licking idiot!” Alongside our so-called scientific result, we showed the users a video of themselves licking their own phone. With a budget of just a few hundred dollars we were able to deliver some impressive results through our targeted efforts, a few paid ads and a massive amount of legwork pounding the pavement of hate- groups online.


For more details about this panel discussion, see The promises and limitations of using comedy as a tool for social change (Skoll Centre Blog).

Unleashing Conscious Capital

Bart Houlahan (Co-Founder, B Lab) moderated. The panelists were: Michelle Arévalo-Carpenter (CEO and Co-Founder, IMPAQTO), Perry Chen (Founder and Chairman, Kickstarter), Sean Hinton (Director, Economic Advancement Program, Open Society Foundations), and Jacqueline Novogratz (Founder and CEO, Acumen).

Chen talked about Kickstarter as a vehicle for conscious capital and about Kickstarter’s access to capital as a (Delaware) public benefit corporation. Right now, the legal form is not making access to capital easier.

Arévalo-Carpenter, who is from Ecuador, discussed the challenges of access to conscious capital in her country. IMPAQTO works with early-stage, smaller market social enterprises where the risks of investment are higher. Their working principle is that world-changing innovation can come from anywhere.

Novogratz said the question she gets asked from young people is: “How can you be so old and yet so enthusiastic?” What needs to change is seeing investment as a means and not as an end. She said we need to build a moral revolution for this generation.

Hinton noted that many impact investors don’t recognize the difference between causation and correlation. He said we need to know that there may be a trade-off. Open Society sees three areas to invest in: (1) public goods (don’t have a fundable, viable investment model – e.g., independent media); (2) early-stage ventures/sectors (which come so early that they are unlikely to profit but blaze the trail); (3) risk (e.g., Palestine, ebola-infected regions).

Chen said it feels like there are zero people out there who are genuinely interested in funding Kickstarter because it isn’t designed for profit maximization. Chen said if Kickstarter can’t get money, what is the hope for similar startups focused on impact and cautioned that we’re headed towards a world of Facebooks.

Novogratz said she could go down the same hole with 17 years of stories, including flying to London so she could get turned down by an investor because she wasn’t maximizing profits. We’re caught in a system of money, fame, and power. But she said she would shine the light in Perry’s darkness. Is philanthropy just subsidizing investors? The conversations are starting to change so we’re not bifurcating philanthropy from investments. Novogratz is raising funds with a development finance institution where the first round is going to get a negative 20% return.

Arévalo-Carpenter added that as an accelerator 90 percent of her projects are in the middle of microfinancing and more commercial financing where they can’t get funding from either. Capital isn’t interested in the middle. Becoming a B corporation has created some hope in finding philanthropic capital even through the challenges of funding a foreign for-profit.

Hinton said he has always been told he was in the missing middle for investment. And he acknowledged that development finance believes it shouldn’t fund in a concessionary way that crowds out public capital. Difficult to disaggregate bad deals from good deals focused on impact. Part of the reason is impact measurements are difficult.

A questions from the audience followed the theme about how “impact investing” as a term has been coopted by institutions that are repackaging “socially responsible investing” and the news about the amounts of money available are therefore misleading to true impact investors.

Novogratz said we need tools, rules, and role models to tell better stories about true impact investing where there is a trade-off of profit maximization for social impact. Capitalism has become a religion, and it’s difficult to question it. The counter-intuitive approach might be attractive to the next generation: If you believe investment is a means not an end, if you believe in the long-term not the short-term, if you believe in stakeholders and not shareholders, then we’re for you. If you don’t believe in these things, we’re not.

For more details about this panel discussion, see Confronting the hard truths of impact investing (Skoll Centre Blog).

Oxford Union Debate: The Promise And Peril Of “Tech For Good”

A highly thought-provoking debate on the promise and peril of “Tech for Good” took place at the Oxford Union’s legendary debating chamber. We heard from three experts from each side and additional shorter opinions from the attendees. Ultimately, the side defending the promise of tech for good prevailed by vote of the attendees. Anchoring the winning side was Shashi Buluswar, CEO of Institute for Transformative Technologies, a nonprofit I’ve been honored to work with. Sean Hinton’s closing argument for the other side was also notable for its precision, tact, eloquence, and wit. For more details about the debate, see The Promise and Peril of ‘Tech for Good’ (Skoll Centre Blog).

Film Screening: The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

Writer, director, and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor introduced The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a feature film about William Kamkwamba, who also co-wrote the book on which the film was based. It was produced by Participant Media (founded by Jeff Skoll) and was a perfect fit for the Skoll World Forum. Fred Swaniker (Chairman and Founder, African Leadership Academy) spoke to the audience after the screening, telling us about Kamkwamba’s future after the story, the many other young leaders in Africa (where the average age is 19.5 year old), and the African Leadership Academy (and its moonshot goal of creating 3 million leaders in 6,000 days).